P ainted in 1817, this highly important sketch is an early preparatory study for The White Horse, the first of Constable's famous ‘Six-Footers’, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819. One of the artist’s most celebrated works, The White Horse is a seminal painting in the history of British art and only a very small number of preparatory studies were made for it. This is the finest and most important of only two known small-scale compositional oil sketches that relate to The White Horse.
Possibly painted on the spot in the summer of 1817, with the artist responding directly to the landscape, the composition echoes that of a small pencil drawing of the scene made in a sketchbook Constable used in Suffolk in 1814 and represents a crucial development in the particularly complex evolution of this celebrated composition. The finished painting depicts a view from the right bank of the River Stour, at Dedham Vale, near East Bergholt, showing a small reach of the river just below Flatford Lock looking towards Willy Lott's Cottage. This sketch concentrates on the central part of the composition, with Willy Lott's Cottage – one of the key images in Constable’s art – seen through the trees and a thatched boat shed on the far bank of the river, both of which appear in the finished painting. A smaller, horizontal but related oil sketch and a small study in oils of the barge and horse itself, together with a pencil drawing of the boathouse, represent the only other known preparatory works by the artist for this pivotal and iconic composition.
The White Horse represents a vital turning point in Constable’s career. It was the first in a series of six monumental Stour Valley compositions, known as the artist’s celebrated ‘six footers’, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825. These epic canvases represent the culmination of a process which he had begun as early as 1812, with a smaller view of Flatford Lock and Mill, and all share a common theme – each depicting a scene within a three-mile radius of Constable’s family home in East Bergholt. All six have a very particular narrative, illustrating familiar scenes of everyday life on the river under a bright summer sky. These works largely cemented the artist’s contemporary reputation and have served as the basis for his fame ever since. For many they define the pinnacle of the artist’s career. The White Horse was critically well received at the Academy exhibition of 1819 – the correspondent for the Examiner praising it for being more like nature than any existing landscape painting and compared Constable’s art favourably to that of Turner; whilst the Literary Chronicle wrote: ‘What a grasp of everything beautiful in rural scenery’ and predicted that Constable would soon be the leading landscape painter in the nation.
The only painting that Constable exhibited in 1819, it was therefore off the back of the success of The White Horse that Constable was finally elected to the long-awaited position of Associate Member of the Royal Academy (A.R.A), by a substantial majority of his peers, that same year – ultimate validation that the transformation of his artistic practise, which he had been working steadily towards for the last seven years, had paid off. Importantly, it also sold – and sold quickly – for the substantial price of 100 guineas, thus giving Constable a measure of commercial success and independent financial security that he had not previously known in his career.
The painting was bought by his close friend Archdeacon Fisher, and it is a measure of the significance that the artist placed upon The White Horse that in 1829, when Fisher was heavily in debt, Constable bought the painting back at its original price of 100 guineas and retained it for the rest of his life. The gestation of The White Horse was a particularly complicated and protracted one for the artist, however, and the painting was ultimately the fruit of a seed of ambition that had begun much earlier and required many years of labour to fulfil. It is in this complex gestation and development that the present sketch plays such an important role.
This seminally important sketch has been almost unanimously dated by scholars to 1817 – a pivotal but particularly complex period in Constable's art. The previous year two seismic events had taken place in the artist’s life. In May his father, Golding Constable, had died and the ensuing division of family property left him with an income sufficient to finally marry his long-time love, Maria Bicknell, despite her family’s opposition. This he duly did on 2 October that year. His life, which had hitherto been a peripatetic existence, partly based in Suffolk and partly in London, now became more settled in the capital, and in December the newly married couple moved into their first home at 63 Charlotte Street in Bloomsbury. He would in future spend little time in his native Suffolk, focusing instead on his life and career in London, and his determination to paint larger, more ambitious landscapes.
The White Horse was painted entirely in his London studio, the first time he had made a painting on a large scale of a Suffolk subject without direct reference to the motif. It was probably for this reason that he adopted, again for the first time, the device of painting a full-scale sketch, in order to map out the composition on a one-to-one scale, prior to starting work on what would be the finished canvas. Hitherto Constable’s practice, up to 1816, had been to paint landscapes out of doors, on the spot, with direct reference to the landscape itself – often referred to as en plein air. By at least 1814 he was not only sketching out of doors, but painting, or at least mostly painting, fully finished exhibition paintings on the spot, directly in front of the motif itself. One such is Wivenhoe Park, painted largely in the summer of 1816 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1817, which is almost forty inches wide. By 1816, however, with his ambition growing, it became clear that he had taken on-the-spot painting as far as he could and was beginning to realise the limitations of this method. As we have seen, if he was to compete with the likes of Turner, John Martin, James Ward and Augustus Wall Callcott, all of whom were exhibiting monumental landscapes at the Academy, he would need to paint on a far more ambitions scale. A scale that was simply not logistically possible out in the open fields.
In painting both the full-scale sketch and the finished painting, however, entirely in the studio he would have needed to refer to abundant source material brought back with him from Suffolk. Between mid-July and October 1817, Constable and his wife had made one last long trip to East Bergholt for an extended summer
holiday – what has been described as Constable’s ‘valedictory’ visit to the place of his birth. The place, in his own words, that had ‘made him a painter’. Possibly anticipating that this might be his last chance to record his native landscape in detail, before the cares of a family caught up with him, Constable avidly made a large number of drawings and oil sketches on this trip.
Constable was an artist for whom the very process of painting was a vital tool in the continuous endeavour to produce a more naturalistic art. Whilst he undoubtedly drew, sketched in oil and painted finished pictures on the spot in the open air, particularly in the period up to 1817, he was also busy creating compositional studies in his studio, expanding and elaborating on compositions he had first worked out in the fields and lanes around East Bergholt and along the banks of the Stour, and developing them towards the monumental works of art that he would exhibit at the Academy throughout the rest of his life. These compositional studio studies were a key component in the transition from an experimental, but essentially self-taught young painter attempting to stay true to a literal conception of naturalism, to one of the greatest and most ground-breaking artists of the nineteenth century; an artist who would come to produce some of the most lyrically beautiful landscapes ever produced in British art.
Constable Country, as it has come to be known today – that area of the Stour Valley around Dedham Vale, on the border between Suffolk and Essex, bounded on the west by the village of Nayland, and on the east by the sea – has become synonymous with the great painter who immortalised its bucolic river meadows and shaded waterways. A fertile and workmanlike landscape centred on the village and parish of Dedham, in Constable’s day the area was principally an agricultural centre, the main industry being founded on the production of wheat, barley and oats. The artist's parents, Golding and Ann Constable, lived at East Bergholt, where the young painter was born and brought up. Until at least 1821, Constable almost exclusively painted places that he knew, and with which he was completely familiar, in marked contrast, for instance, to Turner’s more typical practice and his voracious appetite for touring. This had obvious consequences for his art, for Constable knew his landscape, both over time and from numerous angles. He would have both seen it change over time and have been conscious of the degree to which a limited area of terrain could be differentiated topographically, with this local intimacy and memory both informing his paintings.
Constable’s monumental Stour Valley paintings challenged convention of the classical tradition of academic landscape by depicting un-idealised everyday landscapes on a grand scale traditionally reserved for religious and historical subjects, thus elevating the seemingly mundane to the heroic through scale. Indeed it was the exhibition of this very subject – The White Horse – at the 1833 Exposition National des Beaux Arts in Brussels which introduced his work to the French school of landscape painters and set in train a revolution in European art that would find its fullest expression half a century later in the work of the French Impressionists. During the 1870s both Monet and Picasso studied Constable’s work in London, and in 1873 Van Gogh acknowledged his debt to the English artist in a letter to his brother Theo, written from London. Whilst all these artists were influenced by the freedom of Constable’s brushwork, it was as much his subject matter as his treatment of paint that they found so radical, and so inspirational. The everyday, the ordinary made noble, a subject fit for the realms of high art. Even today Constable’s art continues to inspire and influence, as was acknowledged by the late Lucien Freud who was both directly inspired by Constable’s work and saw his influence on the work of earlier nineteenth- and twentieth-century painters: ‘I may be quite wrong’, he said, ‘but I can’t see Van Gogh’s Boots without Constable behind them’.